In this week’s New Yorker…

October 4, 2010

…actually, before the moment passes and the new issue arrives in my mailbox, I want to mention a couple of noteworthy pieces in LAST week’s issue.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a thoughtful essay about the difference between social activism and social networking, contrasting the world of Facebook/Twitter with civil rights actions in the 1960s, like the day when four college students in Greensboro, NC, sat down at a segregated Woolworth’s counter and asked to be served. To me, the piece was a good reminder that online networking is useful for disseminating information and staying in contact with friends and acquaintances, but when it comes to Getting Things Done, there’s no substitute for community action that you do with other people in the same room.

Music critic Alex Ross did an excellent piece about one of my all-time culture heroes, John Cage (above), on the occasion of the publication of Kenneth Silverman’s biography, Begin Again. Here’s a story I’d never heard before: after years of living on the edge of poverty, “by the end of the fifties, Cage’s financial situation had imiproved, though not because of his music. After moving to Stony Point [NY], he began collecting mushrooms during walks in the woods. Within a few years, he had mastered the mushroom literature and co-founded the new York Mycological Society. He supplied mushrooms to various elite restaurants, including the Four Seasons. In 1959, while working at the R.A. I. Studio of Music Phonology, a pioneering electronic-music studio, in Milan, he was invited on a game show called ‘Lascia o Raddopppia?’ — a ‘Twenty-One’-style program in which contestants were asked questions on a subject of their choice. Each week, Cage answered, with deadly accuracy, increasingly obscure questions about mushrooms. On his final appearance, he was asked to list ‘the twenty-four kinds of white-spore mushrooms listed in Atkinson.’ (Silverman supplies a transcript of this historic moment.) Cage named them all, in alphabetical order, and won eight thousand dollars. He used part of the money to purchase a VW bus for the [Merce] Cunningham company.”

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